Tooth Gnashers

  • Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
  • Psalm 90:1-12
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
  • Matthew 25:14-30

This week I’m going to start out talking about the portion from the Gospel, and to use the Finnish idiom, I’m going to toss the cat right onto the table: Is the God we worship a radically type-A capitalist who expects all of those who work for him (without any option of changing jobs) to stress themselves out with the task of doubling his money for him every season; and who tosses those who fail to reach such targets into a torture cell of sorts?

In some ways it’s surprising how many preachers are prone to interpret this parable in such a way; in other ways it’s not. There’s a fair amount of accuracy in the cynical old comment that God made man in his own image, and man returned the favor. Many who don’t really care about their fellow man, and who try to give meaning to their own miserable existence by maximizing the amount of control they are able to exercise over others financially, still want to believe that God is on their side, and that the way they abuse others is actually a manifestation of His will. Thus there is a major market for sermons to support such a perspective. What can we say about that? Please be careful about believing that preachers who suck up to this crowd speak for God. Jesus never sucked up to such people; quite the opposite in fact.

When it comes to interpreting Jesus’ parables, we need to start by looking at who the primary subjects are, which characters’ dilemmas the audience is intended to identify with, and what change of perspective Jesus is trying to lead them towards. We need to be careful about drawing conclusions about God, or life in general, from Jesus’ parables that go beyond that. For a few examples to make this principle clear:

  • When Jesus compares the applicability of putting his message into the Pharisees’ ritual format to putting new wine into old wineskins (Mt. 9:17), this does not mean that his message is something to get drunk on.
  • When Jesus sends out his disciples on their first missionary trip he says that in different ways they are to be like sheep, snakes and doves all at the same time (Mt. 10:16). He did not, however, expect them to wear wool, scales and/or feathers as part of their mission.
  • If you think that is ridiculous, check out the discussion in Matthew 16 about bread: Jesus had to specifically tell his disciples, after comparing the Pharisees’ teaching to yeast, that no, he was not hinting that they should have packed a bigger sandwich lunch for the day!
  • Taking one last example of this principle from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 18, in the parable of the persistent widow, while Jesus was encouraging his followers to be more like the widow, he is not implying that God is like a corrupt judge who doesn’t “fear God or respect anyone.”

So by the same token, no, Jesus is not saying that God is like a radically capitalist slave-master.

But let’s turn to the positive here: rather than focusing on what Jesus was not trying to say, let’s consider what Jesus actually was saying, or what Matthew is presenting as Jesus’ message in this parable.

One expression somewhat unique to the Gospel of Matthew is that he talks a lot about people who are being punished ending up in a place where they are “gnashing their teeth.” The Greek word for “gnashing” here, for what different it makes, is βρυγμος. This word is used 7 times in the whole Bible: 6 in Matthew and 1 in Luke. Given that Luke confesses in the introduction to his Gospel (1:3) to borrowing from other sources, we can be pretty confident in saying that this is something he borrowed from Matthew. “Weeping and gnashing of teeth” then is very much Matthew’s own thing.

So who are Matthew’s tooth gnashers? It’s actually not such a long list:
– Jews who are replaced by Gentiles in the great heavenly reward banquet with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: Mt. 8:11-12 (also referred to in Lk.13:28)
– Evil doers to be tossed into fire by the angels, as part of the explanations of two parables in Matthew 13
– The random guest at the king’s son’s wedding who came in a t-shirt and cut-offs (or some equivalent of their time) rather than dressing for the occasion: Mt. 22:13
– The overseer slave who got drunk and abusive while his master was gone and there was no one there to check up on him: Mt. 24: 51
– And then from today’s reading, in verse 30.

So this verse actually draws to a close Matthew’s summary of Jesus teachings about those who will be grinding their teeth because of God’s punishment on them. One this involves a brutal dismemberment; two times, a fiery furnace; and three times – including today’s passage – “outer darkness.” And what have the respective offenders done to deserve this? In the brutal dismemberment case – the end of chapter 24 – it was for not only misappropriating corporate resources, but for grossly abusing fellow workers. In the fiery furnace cases, from chapter 13, the offenders had tried to secretly blend in among genuine believers and share their position without being noticed. The “outer darkness” cases all relate to basic disrespect towards God as their benefactor. In chapter 8 this follows through on the discussion regarding the strong faith that a Roman centurion had in Jesus’ power, that none of the Jews came close to appreciating in the same way. Then with the wedding feast parable in chapter 22 we have a fellow who knew he was getting an honor far beyond what he deserved, but he didn’t bother to show any appreciation for the opportunity. The parable of the talents here is following through on that same line then.

The main focus of this parable is on the fellow who ends up being punished, and the first thing we find out about him is that he’s not really the sharpest knife in the drawer: in verse 15 their master gave out responsibilities according to what he knew about his workers’ abilities, and for this fellow to get so much less than the others simply shows that the master didn’t really expect much of him. This was more an exercise in giving the worker who hadn’t actually been doing so well another opportunity to prove himself; and like the sleazy wedding guest, this worker didn’t really seem to appreciate the opportunity.

The next thing we notice is that when reporting time comes around this lazy waste of space tries to cover up the fact that he hadn’t even tried to get anything done with a classic bit of BSing the boss: “You are such a tough, scary guy that I couldn’t imagine taking a risk of losing your investment, so…” The boss had to point out to him that back then there were in fact some functionally zero-risk investments available; you just had to pay a slight bit of attention to them. By trying to BS the boss this lazy fellow was actually making things worse for himself: It’s one thing not to do the job you were hired to do; it’s quite another to try to convince the boss that your laziness was an exercise in good faith!

I’ve often wanted to get one of those t-shirts which says, “You can’t fire me. Slaves have to be SOLD!” This story, however, somewhat disproves that rule. This effectively useless slave was not worth trying to sell, so his punishment was basically to be tossed out onto the street without any provision to feed or protect himself. He was simply fired. Compared to that, for this particular fellow, being a slave was actually a pretty good deal.  But no matter how much bawling and tooth-gnashing he might try to do, he wasn’t going to be taken back into this master’s service.

So who is Jesus addressing this parable to? It is fairly clearly the same audience as for the parable of the torch-bearing girls at the wedding that went before it, and those being punished in each story have things in common: the ditzy girls who were supposed to help provide a torchlight escort for the bridal couple to their new home, but who couldn’t be bothered to bring along enough lamp oil to do the job, were presumably (as a matter of the Jewish tradition of the time) part of the bridegroom’s clan, so they didn’t figure that they were responsible for actually doing anything beyond that. In the parable of the talents the person being punished is someone who assumes that he is an insider – the lowest possible ranking insider, but still an insider – and as such he felt like he had nothing to lose. Therefor he didn’t really even bother to try to do the job he has been assigned to take care of.

So who were the religious insiders of Jesus’ time who were officially supposed to be serving God semi-professionally, but in practice weren’t even trying? The implication here is that Jesus is once again talking about the Pharisees, and other assorted bureaucrats of the Jewish religious establishment that were always milling around Harod’s temple at the time. A major running theme throughout Matthew’s Gospel is how the temple system of Jesus’ time, impressive as it may have seemed to some, was entirely doomed. As we now well know, within 40 years of Jesus’ death, not one stone of the temple was left standing on top of the one it had been supported by when Jesus was teaching next to it.

The irony with which Jesus spoke in this parable was particularly biting because these religious bureaucrats considered the core essence of their jobs to be keeping anything from changing – to keep the one little talent that they had been given from ever getting moved around or exchanged for some other system of value. But by preserving this “coin” for its own sake, they were preventing it from being used to do any good, and from increasing in value through a more open sort of interaction.

But let’s leave them aside these specific historical characters for the moment. The lesson here is not about how evil the Jews were; but about how important it is for us to appreciate the mercy God has bestowed upon us in the form of the opportunities he has given us, and for us to take these opportunities seriously in terms of participating in the building of God’s Kingdom. And how do we participate in the building of this kingdom? By taking the value of the mercy that we have received seriously, and putting some serious effort into paying it forward to all those whom God also loves, and who need His mercy as much as we did when Christ found us. It is this, not a capacity to make a show of how self-righteousness we can be, that God is expecting of us.

Our other passages of the day relate to how fleeting the rest of human life really is, and how we can never be sure when we will be standing before God to give an account of what we have done with the great gift of life that he has given us. (Cue up the 1970s classic rock hit, “Dust in the Wind.”) There is much to be said for having an awareness of death guiding our lives. Let us live then for what is truly important: for having a purpose that transcends the limits of our own little lives – not by trying to keep some tradition that we have been given from changing, but by putting what we have been given to full use at what we know our master truly values.

Let us pray.

 

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“My Only Friend, the End”

  • Psalm 70
  • Amos 5:18-24
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
  • Matthew 25:1-13

I need to begin this sermon with a confession: I grew up in a religious community very close to the Millerite tradition –– among people prone to scouring the scriptures for hints of exactly when Jesus might be coming back, and always making predictions as to when the world as we know it should be coming to an end. The earliest of those dates for Jesus coming back which I was told about as a child basically told me that I would not have an opportunity to grow up and have children of my own because Jesus would be coming back already before I was old enough for such things!

News flash: that didn’t happen. But in the generation and a half since then I haven’t seen any decrease in the frequency of predictions for Jesus returning within a certain fairly immediate time frame.

This makes it rather difficult for me to preach about eschatology: the study of the “end times”. There is no question about this being part of the message of the Bible, and one of the core aspects of Jesus’ own teaching, but there is also no question about the fact that when it comes to provable historical predictions on the matter, Christians have got it deeply and repeatedly wrong, and never actually got it right.

So do we just throw away those parts of the Bible? I don’t believe in that approach either, though I’m not surprised that some of those I’ve known since childhood, who still believe in God in spite of all of the misinformation we were given in his name, would like to take a scissors to today’s scripture reading.

In any case, when it comes to looking at the ways in which our world could come to an end there are some important things we should be asking ourselves:
What should we be hoping for?
What horrors should we be building up the courage to deal with if things get especially ugly?
And what is the most honest and constructive approach for us to take in the mean time?
Those are the question I want to put to our passages for today.

But before we turn to those I want to tell you a fable:

Once upon a time there was a tick hiding in some bushes next to a river, looking for some animal to latch itself onto. Suddenly the leaf where the tick was sitting came loose from the bush and fell into the water, and began to float downstream. The tick looked up and saw the water moving faster and faster, and realized that she was headed towards a big waterfall. From her place on the leaf she began to scream, as loud as a tick can scream, “The world is coming to an end! The world is coming to an end!”

A dragon fly heard the noise and flew over to see what was going on. He figured out the situation quite quickly and said to the tick, “The world isn’t coming to an end, you silly little bug. It’s just your own, tiny life that’s about to end.”

“Yes,” said the tick, “but when my life ends my whole world ends with it!”

For the tick that was probably true, but for you and I it doesn’t have to be. Take a moment to meditate on that.

Turning then to Psalm 70, King David is sure that the world around him will go on, and there will still be those who praise JWHW. He’s just not sure if he will be one of them. He begins and ends this psalm by basically saying, “Um, God, not to be disrespectful or anything, but when it comes to helping me out, would you mind hurrying up just a little bit? I’m in a sort of desperate place here!” How many of you have been there? Recently?

Notice, by the way, that David is not trying to shift the blame for his situation onto anyone else. Yes, he is cursing the enemies he is facing, especially those who are going “Aha! Aha!” at him. (Don’t you just hate it when people start following you around going “Aha! Aha!” at you all the time?) But these enemies had merely discovered that David had messed things up for himself. They were out to rub it in, and maybe even to take advantage of this situation to eliminate David so as to improve their own positions. David finds these characters to be more than a little bit irritating, but as usual he understands that they are not to blame for his situation. They are like vultures: slimy, disgusting creatures circling around hoping bad things happen to others; not really causing harm so much as diving in to enjoy it once it happens. People like that definitely deserve whatever curses and shame fall upon them, but that still doesn’t mean they are to blame. Blame isn’t really the issue here. The issue is that things are bad, and without God’s help they could very soon become hopeless. So the message is, “God… could you please… not because I think you owe me anything, and not because I don’t deserve to be in this mess I find myself in… but if you would be so kind as to help me out here I’d really like to get back into the position of being one of those who can tell everyone how you take care of your own!”

This is in major contrast to what Amos 5 has to say. Amos is talking to people who seem to expect that they can magically summon God to rush in and take their side in the problems they’ve got themselves into. They probably even sang Psalm 70, and other worship songs with the message that God is in the business of helping those who trust in him, even if they have made mistakes. In the earlier part of the chapter though Amos tells how these people have gone around making the rich richer and the poor poorer through all sorts of public corruption and short-sighted greed. They set up these comfy mansions and such for themselves, and now they expect that when things go badly they can just say, “OK God, we need some help here: clean up in Aisle 5 please.”

So Amos is telling them, “No, you’ve missed the point. When God steps in to clean up your mess it’s not going to be a happy time for you. A major part of his program is going to be taking from you what you’ve scammed the poor out of. If you think you’ll be able to get away with your crimes by just saying a formal ‘Oops, sorry,’ to God and then sharing part of the loot with him in the form of some set of big, dramatic offerings and sacrifices, dream on! You’re in for a rude awakening! If you think that ‘the day of the Lord’ will be some sort of happy day for you and yours, you’ve totally got the wrong end of the stick!”

Alright, well, what does God really want then? As scarily leftist and out of style as it may be, Amos’ message from God in answer to that question, in verse 24, can be summed up in two words: “social justice.” Or we can go with the actual Hebrew words he uses to say the same thing:

The Hebrew word here for the sort of “justice” that Amos wants to see rolling on the river is “mishpat”: solid, wise judgment from a king or judge, of the sort Solomon was famous for, making sure that no one is getting cheated. The word for the sort of “righteousness” that’s supposed to be streaming along without drying up here is “tsädaqah”: a pretty close synonym for mishpat in many ways, but with a little bit more of a connotation of the truth coming out, the innocent being vindicated and justice properly being served in that sense. Both point back to verses 10-15 of the same chapter, where Amos talks about how justice for the poor was pretty much a lost cause in this era. So you want God on your side? Start by fixing the way your system takes care of poor people!

Moving up to I Thessalonians 4 then, again we have a rather contrasting situation. Thessalonica was not the sort of  place where Christians could bring about any form of justice or official respect for others. They actually had no political power there whatsoever. On the contrary, according to the background story for this book in Acts 17, mob violence against Christians in Thessalonica made it one of the few places that Paul decided to stay out of for fear for his own safety.

The particular issue of concern to the Thessalonians that Paul is addressing here is that some of their church members had died, and in the same sort of way as for the tick on the leaf, they were feeling like this was a terrible way for their friends’ worlds to have come to an end. They had good reason to feel disturbed actually. Comparing some of the details in I Thessalonians with the story in Acts 17, we get the impression that this epistle was written less than a year, maybe just a few months, after the Thessalonian church was first established. In that short a time it would have been highly unlikely that any significant number of church members would have died of natural causes. Putting that together with the fact that Paul was justifiably too afraid for his own life to hang around anywhere close to Thessalonica, it is thus not very far-fetched to surmise that many of Thessalonica’s first believers were probably killed by mobs that had been hunting for Paul. So under those circumstances what could Paul really say to the church there?

Basically, “In the end we’re going to win. Jesus really is the Lord of all, and being on his side is really all that matters.”

I mentioned in a previous sermon here that at this early point in his preaching career Paul was fully convinced that he was personally going to live to see Jesus return, and he was trying to get the Thessalonians to expect the same, though in the end that didn’t happen. We need to deal with that fact in some way that doesn’t involve childish denial. But setting that aside for the moment, there’s a deeper aspect to Paul’s message here: Unlike the tick on the leaf, these Thessalonian martyrs’ worlds, or world, had not come to an end with their deaths. No, their lives did not resume again in quite the way Paul envisioned that they would within the natural lifetimes of those he was writing to, but nor did their world come to an end. Their world continues on to this very day, and by reading Paul’s message to their bereaved friends and feeling something of the fear and angst they went through, we are part of these Thessalonian martyrs’ world, demonstrating its continuing reality and importance. That’s something else for you to meditate on.

Finally, in closing, we come to Jesus’ story of the wise and foolish virgins waiting for a bridegroom to show up. First of all let me set aside one common misinterpretation here: the wedding feast in question here is not the “wedding supper of the lamb” from Revelation 19, and above all the girls with the lamps were not trying out for positions in the delayed groom’s harem. Jesus’ bride, the church (Ephesians 5:21-33), will not be assembled on the basis sort of a random, “OK, who here is ready to marry me?” cattle call of the sort that some take this parable to imply.

So in what way then will the “kingdom of heaven” be like these girls waiting for a bridegroom? The scene goes something like this: An ancient middle-eastern wedding celebration happened in two primary stages –– the first together with the bride’s family and then the second among the groom’s people. The part which took place at the bride’s parents’ home could go on for God knows how long. The only sure thing was that after the couple had said their vows to each other, as witnessed by the bride’s people, they were expected to go spend their first night together as husband and wife in the new home that the groom would be providing for his bride, among his own people. It could be well after dark when the groom would arrive home with his new bride to start the second phase of the wedding celebration. Thus one of the honorary duties that could be assigned to young ladies from the groom’s clan would be to wait outside of the village with torches ready to light the way for the bridal couple to make their ceremonial entrance into the bride’s new home, thus welcoming the bride into the clan. In exchange for this service these young ladies would get to take part in the more adult celebration to take place at the groom’s house over the next several days.

Well, as it turned out, half of the girls chosen for this task at this particular wedding turned out to be fundamentally stupid; they had one job and they blew it! What little fuel they had preloaded into their torches got used up while the couple was still celebrating with the bride’s family, so when the time came to do their job of providing lighting for the couple’s grand entry, these five ditzy things were saying, “oops, umm… help?”

Their colleagues couldn’t really do anything for them though; they were ready to do their own jobs, but not ready to take care of their partners who came essentially unprepared. So the when the time came for the wedding couple to be escorted into the house, the groom was disappointed to see only half as much light and welcome for his bride as he had ordered; of the 10 female torch-bearers assigned to the task, 5 were there ready to go, but the other 5 were off in town trying to buy more oil. Then an hour or so later the silly ones showed up and knocked on his door saying, “We’re ready with our torches now. Can we march in and join the party?” After the way they had already screwed things up this would have been a rather useless exercise of course. Even suggesting it made them look all the more stupid. They were rather briskly told to get lost.

This goes together hand-in-glove with the preceding parable in the end of Matthew 24. Let’s modernize that one just a little and say Jesus is talking about a set of managers running their employer’s business while he is out of town. Some stick to taking care of the business they were hired for; others, thinking that the boss will be gone for a long time still, and that no one that matters is watching, decide to forget about the business for a while and just have a party. Guess what. They don’t get away with it.

So what is the business that Jesus expects to find his followers taking care of when he returns, or when they stand before him to account for their actions? In the simplest possible terms Jesus answers this in John 13:34: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Part of how that works in practice is in fact laid out in Amos chapter 5, and in the end of Matthew 25. We need to care for those Christ cares about. Or perhaps stretching the interpretation of the “wise and foolish virgins” parable just a bit, as members of Christ’s own clan –– born (again) into the family of God –– honored with the task of participating in his wedding celebration, we need to make a point of keeping ourselves prepared to welcome not only Jesus, but perhaps even more importantly, his bride –– other members of his church –– for whom we are to help light the way. When we fail to do this one job we are not kicked out of the family, but we are excluded from the joy of the celebration that characterizes “the kingdom of heaven”.

So what should we be hoping for in the great eschatological “day of the Lord”? That we can be part of the process of restoring “justice” and “righteousness,” and that we can thus experience the full joy of the “wedding celebration” experience that the parable is pointing to.

What should we be building courage to face? Perhaps the uncertainties regarding our hope as to how God’s mercy will operate in each of our lives –– whether he will be stepping in to save us from horrible situations we find ourselves in, or whether our salvation will be revealed only in the hereafter.

What is the most honest and constructive approach for us to take for now? Remembering that we really are loved by God, and that we can continue paying that love forward. Historical circumstances are mere logistical details in that process.

Let us pray.

The Paradox of Godly Success

  • Micah 3:5-12
  • Psalm 43
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
  • Matthew 23:1-12

If there is one thing that all of us would like to believe it is that “we” are right and “they” are wrong.

All four of our scripture passages today focus on that belief.

The obvious problem is that these sorts of claims are mutually exclusive; obviously not everyone who holds such a belief can be right about it.

To put this in a suitably anonymous form, a friend of mine recently lost a vast amount of money, far more than he could afford to lose, in a business venture where he was sincerely trying to help others. Now he is at risk of losing his home because of this matter; in part because he trusted partners he shouldn’t have trusted, in part because he didn’t do sufficient research into the business he was investing in, and in part through what we would call sheer bad luck. His only comfort in this matter is believing that regardless of the failures he is experiencing, God is still on his side.

But ironically the businessman who ended up with the money my friend borrowed for this venture in his pocket, who knew pretty well in advance that this business was doomed to fail but took my friend’s money anyway, also claims that God is on his side. If the “luck factor” is assumed to be God’s hand in motion, this more successful business man probably has a stronger case for believing that he enjoys divine favor than my friend does. What basis do we have for saying who is right here?

It seems that few Christians these days are taking this question seriously. Some are excusing their calloused disregard for those they take ruthless advantage of in trying to build their own power and position in this world by cloaking themselves in religious respectability. Others are claiming that those who are experiencing tragedy and failure in life, such as the people of Puerto Rico following the recent hurricane season, deserve less of our compassion and help because their plight is partially from their own bad decisions and partially God’s judgement on their sinful lifestyles. Still others are sitting around “waiting for their ship to come in,” praying that God will take care of them, while doing little to take care of themselves. Do any of these people really have a right to claim that God is on their side, not the other guy’s?

Let’s look just a little deeper into what today’s passages have to say about this matter. Psalm 43 doesn’t state directly who the author is. The only hint within the text itself is that in verse 4 it tells us that he is a harp player. In its context, in “Book 2” within the book of Psalms, it is surrounded by psalms attributed to the “Korahites,” who were the prophet Samuel’s people, who fought together with King David and who were later assigned by David to be the music directors at the place of worship in Jerusalem before the temple was build. So it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that this psalm has some pretty strong connections with King David. David had plenty of times in his life where bad guys troubled him, and where in one form or another God came to his rescue. He had his significant ups and downs. He had his times when he was out of royal favor, through no fault of his own, in his younger days at least. On the other hand, David was less prone to blame his enemies for his problems than this psalmist seems to be. Psalm 38, attributed to David, starts out by saying “God, please don’t be angry with me!” The core message of David’s Psalm 39 is in verse 8: “Deliver me from all my transgressions.” So even though he believes that God is on his side, he tends to belief more that his problems are his own fault more than his enemies’. So maybe it was someone else who wrote Psalm 43.

Whatever the case, this psalm focuses pretty heavily on the value of truth as such. The two characteristics of the ungodly that this psalmist is blaming his problems on, in verse 1, are that they are deceitful and unjust. So what does he want God to do about this for him? In verse 3: “send out your light and your truth.” He wants God to keep him, and those around him, honest and focused on what is true and where they’re supposed to be going. If truth wins out, this psalmist is pretty sure that everything will work out fine; that he’ll be singing his hallelujahs again.

Turning to Micah, here we have a prophet from the time of the later Divided Kingdom before either kingdom got conquered by their more powerful neighbors. In case you don’t remember the story, David’s son Solomon was a really successful king by most measures, but his son, Rehoboam, turned out to be a total idiot, and because of his incompetence the kingdom split in half; with the Israelites in the north, with Samaria as their capital, and the Jews in the south, with Jerusalem as their capital. Both of these kingdoms were pretty screwed up most of the time, but once in a while the southern kingdom got their act together with God and went through a phase of reformation for a while, before slipping back into a fundamentally screwed up state again.

Eventually the Assyrians completely stomped out the northern kingdom, and about a century and a half later the Babylonians took over the southern kingdom, though the Babylonians let the people of their new colony keep their own culture and religious traditions, which is where Judaism as we know it really took shape. But let’s go back to the point of today’s text here.

So Micah was one of the prophets of the time just before the northern kingdom got stomped out. He lived in the southern kingdom during a time when that too was going downhill again. The last two kings of the northern kingdom actually took over the throne by military coup. Both sides were occasionally practicing human sacrifice of infants to appease various local gods other than YHWH, and it was generally not a nice time to be around. (You can check out these stories by comparing the names of the kings given in Micah 1 with 2 Kings 15-17.) Micah starts out chapter 3 by talking about the horrors of cannibalism in the northern kingdom. It’s sort of hard to say if that is literal or figurative here. Let’s hope it was just his figurative, dramatic way of saying that people were doing business in a way that treated other people as completely disposable –– a significant problem of our generation as well.

But then he comes to his main point: There are too many prophets who base their prophecies not on truth or justice, but on how much they’re getting paid. And of course we see that still today –– pastors and priests who are willing to turn a blind eye to all sorts or cheating, cruelty and abuse among leading members of their congregations as long as they themselves are financially secure. Preaching isn’t about truth; it’s about therapy. People aren’t donating to the work of the church so as to take part in spreading God’s love and bringing about His Kingdom; they’re paying the minister for him or her to help them feel better about themselves, which in turn is a task that many in the clergy approach like true professionals. I actually know former “men of God” who have gone as far as switching over to being entrepreneurs in the “self-help” business, and in principle I don’t have a problem with that… as long as truth doesn’t lose its meaning along the way… which sadly tends to happen in such cases.

So Micah is standing there in Jerusalem yelling out, “These other so-called men of God are full of crap, but I’m going to keep telling the truth!” That makes him sound like so many psychotic preachers that we’ve seen over the years that it’s hard to imagine the people having taken him very seriously. Even 2700 years ago that was probably considered to be a tired old song. But the thing is, Micah was right. The so-called men of God who didn’t take their leaders to task –– who took truth to be a matter of choice between alternative narratives, depending on what happened to be convenient and profitable at any given moment –– were leading their nation to ruin.

Micah lived to see the northern kingdom wiped out, and he was saying to his own people in the southern kingdom as well, “You’re not doing much better than Samaria these days, and your turn to get stomped out by your enemies is coming if your keep taking truth as a matter of convenience, and you keep ‘building Zion with blood.’” And of course in hindsight we can see what happened when they didn’t take his message seriously.

Then we come to Paul’s message to the Thessalonians here, which is all about personal integrity. Paul was actually proud of having been a bit paternalistic with these folks. “I acted like a father with you guys. I told you all about what God has done for you. I never asked you to pay me for any of the services I was offering in this regard. My reward in this is the same as any parent’s reward: to see his kids grow into honorable, responsible and well-adjusted adults. So please, keep growing towards becoming well-adjusted citizens of God’s Kingdom!”

It sounds like there might have been just the slightest tinge of self-pity there, the way that so many parents tend to come across when they start talking to their children about how hard they’ve worked, and all they’ve done for them. Sometimes we as parents can’t help sounding just a bit whiney at times. Hopefully we can keep an understanding of our genuine love for our kids in place though, even when we do get whiney. And hopefully our kids also get the message that they have a certain responsibility to take the advantages we have tried to give them and use them well for the good of others.

One of the clichés that goes with parenthood is when we to say to our kids, “Wait until you have children of your own some day!” and we dream of the sweet almost karmic revenge that they too will suffer as part of the great chain of being when the next link is added on after them.

Our kids, meanwhile, are thinking, “Yeah, someday I’ll have my own little brats that I can boss around and tell how things have to be done!” Getting to that position of authority themselves someday is a vision that keeps a lot of kids going through the difficult processes of growing up.

But then in Matthew 23 Jesus takes a whole different perspective on this: forget about being called “father”! When it comes to spiritual stuff at least, in verse 9 he’s saying that God is our only father. God is not on the side of those who are always trying to show everyone how prestigious they are; who are always trying to play the role of spiritual father figure in the sense of trying to get others to look up to them all the time.

So are Jesus and Paul in conflict with each other here? Not really. They’re both saying that those who are motivated to do “God’s work” as an exercise in personal power just don’t get it. It’s supposed to be about helping and serving others. It’s also supposed to be about standing for truth in matters of justice in particular: you can’t ruthlessly take advantage of the poor, or condone others doing so, and still call yourself a spiritual leader.

So what about cases where those who are trying to serve others end up getting ripped off and becoming “losers”? Well, first of all the whole point of the “Beatitudes” in Matthew 5 is to say that God’s view of winners and losers is a bit different than man’s view. Second, there are far more important measures of success in life than money and power. And last (and probably least), God can turn around our material circumstances in favor of those who have lived to honor Him, in His own timing. On that last one I make no specific promises, and any preacher who does is demonstrating that he/she misses the whole point, but such hope can still be a valuable thing to hold onto.

That is something worth meditating on this week.

Let us pray.

“Not Like When I Took Them by the Hand”

 

  • Jeremiah 31:31-34
  • Psalm 46
  • Romans 3:19, 28
  • John 8:31-36

Our scripture reading for today is relatively brief, and I suspect it was planned that way so that there would be plenty of time to talk about this week’s major anniversary: 500 years since the nailing up of the 95 Theses. The common thread to all of these portions is something new coming –– failed religious systems being replaced. So let’s run with it.

It wasn’t a coincidence that Luther happened to nail up his theses on Halloween. To understand this you have to understand something about where the whole idea of Halloween comes from. Over the course of the Middle Ages the Church took over a lot of pagan holidays. Since the time of the Reformation this realization has given rise to a lot of mixed feelings. Part of this is because Luther started the Reformation by taking aim at one of the most conspicuously pagan holidays on the church calendar: All Saints’ Day, otherwise known as All Hallows’ Day.

If we back up a bit, the church calendar has two types of holidays: those which come on fixed days every year –– or at least tied to the same weekend every year for the minor ones –– and then those which change dates every year by more than a month, depending on the phase of the moon. Which ones do you think are more likely to be borrowed from pagan traditions?

That’s right, those which are on the same day every year.

The ones which change dates with the phase of the moon are following through with events of the Jewish calendar that Jesus and his disciples, and the early church, lived according to. The ones that are on fixed dates are taken from the Roman calendar that the church started to officially adopt around 300 years after Jesus’ lifetime.

There was a lot of stuff in that calendar that was pretty important to the Romans, that the Church decided to adopt as a means of teaching these heathen European tribes more about the message of Jesus. So for instance there was the Yule celebration, after the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, when days start getting longer again. The pagan tradition talks about the sun dying and being born again at this time of year. Fine, since we don’t know for sure when Jesus was born, let’s just celebrate that on the day when the light returns and days start getting longer again.

And then there is the time in the middle of the summer when the heathens would celebrate days being at their longest. We can’t expect people to stop celebrating that! No problem. Jesus had a distant cousin who was sort of his fore-runner, and the Gospel of Luke hints that this guy, John the Baptist, was precisely 6 months older than Jesus. So let’s say the mid-summer holiday that John’s day.

Then there’s the time in the spring when there are all the celebrations of the weather getting warmer and the possibilities for planting things and hoping for a great harvest. These are a bit more difficult for the church to take over actually, because there are so many sexual messages included in the celebrations. Maybe we should just try our best to ignore those, and just let people do a bunch of pagan rabbit and egg related rituals together with the celebration of Jesus rising from the dead, just after the Jewish Passover celebration. If they have enough fun with Easter Bunnies maybe they will forget about Mayday.

Fall harvest festivals? Those are a bit variable from country to country. Maybe we don’t need a world-wide holiday to cover that matter. Let’s just have some sort of thanks-giving day in different places once all the field work for the fall is taken care of.

But then we come to a part of the pagan celebration calendar which is more problematic: the time of year when these crazy Europeans start worrying about ghosts!

I have to say that I love the Finnish language when it comes to the names of the months at the end of the calendar year. In English, and in most other European languages, the last four months of the year have names which in Latin literally mean, month 7, month 8 month 9 and month 10. Besides showing that the ancient Romans used to start their calendar two months later, that just sort of lacks imagination. The Finns do a bit better: their name for September translates to “Autumn month”; October, “Crap month”; November, “Death month”; and December, “Yule month”.

It’s tempting to get stuck in a language trivia lesson here, but let’s get to the point: the transition from “Crap month” to “Death month” as the Finns call them, is a pretty scary time of year, when days are dark and dreary and getting darker and drearier every week. The power of death feels like it is getting stronger all the time. So the pagan magic merchants –– sometimes called witches, but closer to an equivalent to televangelists –– used to use this time of year to come around and advertise their services to keep unfriendly ghosts away: “During this difficult time of year you need some supernatural help. If you’ll just make a donation to my ministry I’ll come in and pray over your house in a way that those evil spirits of death won’t be able to hurt you! But if you leave yourself unprotected in this way some really terrible things could happen to you!”

The church didn’t really know what to do about this, but they couldn’t let this tradition go on unchecked, so finally they decided that if people were worried about dead people they should try to focus their attention on all of the best dead people: the saints. “The bad dead people,” they would tell their congregations, “are now stuck in hell, and God has made that prison for damned souls strong enough where they can’t get out to bother you, so don’t worry about them. The good dead people though are up in heaven, and from there they can look down on us and see what’s going on in our lives, listen in on what we have to say, and maybe ask God for a favor or two for us!” So if people needed to start out “Death month” doing rituals related to dead people, rather than doing business with witches they should be talking to all of the saints that could be helping them out. Thus the first of November became All Hallows’ Day or All Saints’ Day.

But that didn’t eliminate the pagan system of selling protection against ghosts entirely; they mostly just did it more or less in secret on the night before the church holiday started: the evening of the Hallows –– Hallows’ evening –– Hallow-e’en. And for that matter the official church holiday in question was nothing particularly Biblical in itself, and it gave rise to its own sorts of craziness. People believed that the best way to get the attention of a particularly powerful saint was to talk to him or her while kneeling real close to part of his or her body, and thus the market for dead bodies parts believed to have come from particularly holy people exploded in Europe. Educated people had a hard time taking it seriously, but if it helped churches make money they weren’t going to try to stop it!

This was one of the things that the crazy reactionary German monk, Marty Luther, picked up on. So when he decided he couldn’t take any more of the nonsense that had worked its way into the church, and when he wrote his list of 95 complaints that he believed needed to be discussed to fix things, it was quite intentional for him back in 1517 that he chose the eve of All Hallows’ as the most appropriate time to start his protest. Not a bad idea actually.

So this Halloween time in particular, as we remember Luther’s brave move of 500 years ago, let us also bear in mind the ways that we too have drifted away from the core message of Jesus. Let’s stop seeking for magical favors from God, and focus on believing that God loves us, and as part of receiving that love it is our moral responsibility to “pay it forward.”

This was actually part of the message that Jeremiah was trying to get through to the Jews: “Stop and focus on how good God has been to you! He’s been leading you by the hand and you still haven’t been getting it. You still keep getting stuck in your selfish games and your silly –– if not downright harmful –– pagan rituals that have nothing to do with God. You keep trying to get magical help from false gods rather than appreciating how much the true God loves you!

Jeremiah’s main conclusion in verse 33 of chapter 31: it isn’t enough for God to lead us by the hand; He has to have a firm hold of our hearts. So let Him in!

In John 8, while Jesus was debating with a bunch of leading religious Jews, who were actually starting to believe in him a bit (verse 30), he was especially trying to get through to them the whole concept of true freedom coming from having God’s truth within us. They missed this point though by getting defensively stuck on their traditional religious credentials –– their connection with Abraham.

For them to go on from there to deny that they had ever been in any form of slavery was wrong on all sorts of levels: Their religion was fundamentally founded on the experience of having been slaves in Egypt before God set them free from all that. At the point in history when they were speaking they were a relatively insignificant vassal state within the Roman Empire, soon to be wiped out as a nation by the empire which held them in this sort of bondage. Many of them were waiting for the sort of “messiah” which would come to make them militarily victorious over the Romans, and thus they did not recognizing the sort of liberation Jesus came to offer. And most importantly, they were stuck in their own compulsion to be violent and reactionary, which on a human, political level was going to be one of the main causes of Jesus’ death.

How many forms of slavery are you in? How many illusions of freedom do you need Jesus to free you from? We’re not going to go through a laundry list here of all the various sins you might be habitually involved in. Suffice to say, I hope you each seriously consider, what are the things that keep you from freely experiencing how much God cares for you, and how much He wants to care for others through you? Are you ready to let God set you free in those areas? I hope so, not only for you but also for me myself.

As Halloween approaches, and as we think of this big Reformation anniversary, I hope none of you get caught up in superstitious nonsense about being afraid of ghosts and the like. All the same, I don’t think we should have a problem with people playing around with confronting their fears, as part of the game of the season, using bats, spider webs, wolf howls, magical carved pumpkins, scary movies and whatever else floats their boats. More importantly though, I hope we can all find the sort of freedom that both Jesus and Jeremiah are talking about here: the freedom that comes from having God’s love in our hearts, and caring for others made in God’s image.

The best way to rid yourself of fear is by meditating on 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

Let us pray.

There is No Other Lord

  • Isaiah 45:1-7
  • Psalm 96
  • I Thessalonians 1
  • Matthew 22: 15-22

Six times in Isaiah chapter 45 we find the phrase “there is no other.”

There’s a certain irony to that. The prophet, claiming to speak directly for God, is addressing his message to a king who he doesn’t actually know, and who doesn’t believe in the God he is speaking on behalf of, telling this king that he (the king) is going to go and seriously kick some butt, because this God he doesn’t believe in is on his side regardless.

The message contains all sorts of testosterone boosting stuff for King Cyrus:
You’re gonna pull the armor off your enemies!
Mountains in your way will be flattened!
The strongest defenses they can think of to keep you out are just going to fall apart when you hit them!
You’re gonna just stumble into treasure and become richer than you can imagine!

OK, so what’s the catch?

Imagine you get that sort of message from some unfamiliar source on the Internet: “Congratulations! You have been chosen to become rich! Your business is now going to boom in ways you never thought possible! With no obligation we are going to show you the most awesome money making system in the world today! There is NO OTHER SYSTEM that can make you rich as fast as this one!” How do you react?

You scroll down and search for the personal information request, or the credit card number input box, or whatever else they might be looking for.

Cyrus likewise would have kept scrolling, until he came to the part in verse 13 where it basically says, “After you get all this you’re going to rebuild my city and let my people go back to living there again.” So there’s the money shot. Should Cyrus go for it?

Cyrus was getting this message from a group of slaves he found in a colony he had just taken over. Think of it this way (the premise here is a true story):

In 1655, during the heyday of the original pirates of the Caribbean, the English, the French, the Spanish and the Dutch were all competing to take over little islands down there, enslave whoever they found on those islands, bring in whatever extra slaves they needed from Africa, load up whatever kind of bling or drugs or other treasure they could find there, and ship it back to their own countries so as to make themselves more rich and powerful. Of course part of the strategy was to knock out the other guys’ strongholds and ships and steal whatever treasure they were carrying. This was also the time period that England had no king, because a bunch of Protestant radicals had killed off the last one and chased away the rest of his family. One of the late king’s nephews, Rupert, was down in the Caribbean leading a group of pirates, trying to raise money to help his cousin take over England again as the new king. So to deal with this situation the government of England sent this badass admiral of theirs down to the Caribbean to try to hunt down Prince Rupert, and to steal whatever he could for the English Commonwealth while he was at it. The Admiral in question was a guy named William Penn, whose son set up this colony that became known as Pennsylvania, but that’s sort of beside the point.

Admiral Penn never did catch the king’s nephew down there, and he didn’t make any major treasure haul, but he did have one major victory: he took over the previously Spanish owned island of Jamaica and made that an English colony, which it remained for hundreds of years. And as part of that victory a whole bunch of darker skinned folks which had been slaves of the Spanish escaped and hightailed up into the mountains to start their own free villages up there, in places where the European armies couldn’t get them (or where it was more trouble than it would have been worth for European armies to try to re-capture them).

OK, so that’s the true historical setting. Now here’s the hypothetical situation that I had in mind in telling that story for background: Imagine that, after Admiral Penn has taken over Jamaica, a crazy looking local guy, who is apparently some sort of leader among these former Spanish slaves, comes up to him and says, “Yeah man, you de boss! Our God, who is the world’s only real god, say he gonna make you de biggest boss in all de world! Ain’t no one going to stand in de way of Massa Penn! Dis is so you know dat da god of da Jamaicans is da real God, even if you don’t believe in him. And because of dis you’re gonna set our people free and help us build the villages we had before dem Spanish came!”

How do you think Penn would have reacted to that message? What would it take from there to convince him that the god of these slaves that came with the territory he conquered was actually the true God of all the world? If he were to go on from there to become a great general, or even a king, would that have proved that the god of the slaves on that island was in fact the creator of the universe? Even if that were to work, it left open the question, if their god was the one true God, how did they become slaves to begin with?

Or would he think that they were just trying to con him into setting them free? Yet for that matter, if the people of the island were willing to help him out and enable him to steal treasure from French, Spanish and Dutch ships coming through, because they believed that their god was on his side, why shouldn’t he set them free?

Maybe Cyrus was thinking something like that when he got this message a bit over 2500 years ago. As a matter of historical fact Cyrus did give the Jews a fair amount of autonomy, and he did support them in rebuilding their place of worship in Jerusalem. He did go on to become the most powerful emperor of his era, but he was never converted to believing that the god of the Jews was the one true God of all the earth.

So the question from there is, why should we believe?

I have to tell you some painful things to start with in this regard: First of all, a simple literal belief in Psalm 96 was the basis for one of the most embarrassing scientific mistakes in the history of Christendom. When it says in verse 10, “The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved,” Medieval thinkers took that to mean that God had specifically revealed to the Psalmist that the Earth held a fixed place in the cosmos; that everything else that we see moving in the sky above us is really… moving in the sky. When this crazy Polish guy called Copernicus (in Latin) came out with his theory that in fact it is the earth that is moving, and all those other bodies out there (other than the moon, and the 5 visible planets) are holding relatively still, the Church basically said, “Yeah, interesting speculation, but don’t take it too seriously, because the Bible says it doesn’t work that way.” A hundred years later this crazy old Italian guy named Galileo Galilei came along, dusted off Copernicus’s theory, found a bunch of evidence to confirm it using this telescope thing he invented, and started poking fun at the folks in the Vatican for not being as smart as they thought they were. Well the Vatican went on to reveal the same sort of “truth” to Galileo that Pontius Pilate set out to reveal to Jesus (John 18:38): for many “truths” the power of torture is more important than rational proof. Galileo died under house arrest as a condemned heretic, and the Vatican’s “truth” on this matter held sway for another couple centuries before they finally accepted that Galileo and Copernicus had been right after all.

That was enough to convince many religious believers to stop taking literal surface readings of scripture as the final truth about scientific matters, but obviously not all of them.

Here’s another painful truth: Paul (with his assistants, Silas and Timothy) wrote the letter of I Thessalonians being fully convinced that they would live to see Jesus return to Earth from heaven to show all of their enemies who was boss. If there is any doubt about this message being implied in the end of verse 10 in chapter 1 –– about Jesus rescuing them “from the wrath that is coming”–– 4:15 makes this message abundantly clear: “we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord…” Paul is directly telling his audience that he had it straight from the Lord that he was going to live to see Jesus’ Second Coming.

News flash: he was wrong. It didn’t happen.

I have lost count of the number of predictions of Jesus’ Second Coming that have come and gone within my lifetime. All I can say is that I am glad my faith was not based on taking such predictions seriously. But here we have a much bigger issue at stake: the fellow who wrote nearly half of the New Testament made what amounts to a false prophecy! He said directly that God told him that things were going to happen in a certain way and they didn’t happen the way he said they would.

I know that there are many who still try to find loopholes in his wording to deny that he was actually saying what he was saying –– firmly predicting that Jesus was going to come back before he and those he was writing to would die, and that some serious “wrath” was going to hit those who were on the wrong side when that happened. Simply put, they’re wrong. Paul was wrong. We have to deal with it.

How do we deal with it? In short by living the core message of Jesus’, and Paul’s, and the Old Testament prophets’ message: There is a great, loving and merciful God that wills good to us, and on that basis we must will good and reveal his love to each other.

Paul was proud of the Thessalonians because they “got this” thoroughly. They had watched how Paul and his followers had come, not to sell them some new sort of magical powers like those they used to expect from their idols, but setting an example of caring for people and serving each other. The Thessalonians had completely got into caring for Paul’s team and each other in a way that set an example for the rest of their nation, regardless of all of the trouble they got themselves into by doing so. Be like a Thessalonian.

In the story of the junior Pharisees trying to trap Jesus on the tax question, we see that the coins had (and usually still have) the ruler’s image on them, so it is entirely appropriate to give some of them back to the ruler depicted there. By the same token, Jesus is clearly implying that we see God’s image somewhere – in ourselves and each other – and we need to seriously consider what we are to do with that which is imprinted with the image of God. (Genesis 1:26, in case you missed it.)

Psalm 96 is an outstanding example of how to build a 13-verse lyrical riff off of the first part of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name!” That’s a hugely important part of how we have to ground ourselves before we go on to praying for stuff like God’s help in getting our “daily bread” and him giving us mercy that we can pass on to others.

As to Isaiah 45, well… God hasn’t called all of us to be world conquerors like Cyrus. Sometimes it’s hard to see the logic in who he chooses for what, and why he doesn’t give some of us more power and privilege. The point remains to believe that there is a plan, and somehow God has his reasons. There’s nothing to be gained by believing in complete randomness and a total lack of justice in the world.

And to the extent that God does put some of us in positions of power, we need to remember to use that power to “give back to God what is God’s.”

Let us pray.

In the Presence of my Enemies

  • Isaiah 25:1-9
  • Psalm 23
  • Philippians 4: 1-9
  • Matthew 22:1-14

The 23rd Psalm is definitely one of the top 5 most memorized passages of the Bible. The opening line of “The LORD is my shepherd…” rings a bell for even the least religious of people. It is one of those portions which can be rewritten in funny dialects and in the vernacular of different political ideologies as a joke, and pretty much everyone gets it because, at least passively, they recall the original so well. With that in mind it’s hard to find much new to say about this psalm, but the other portions of scripture in today’s reading provide a preacher with a bit of unexpected hope in that regard: they point us to something about ourselves that we rarely stop to think about, and even more rarely admit to ourselves; and this intentionally unnoticed factor is actually not even something sinful!

Drumroll please…

We need enemies.

Yes, we hate to admit that more than anything. Enemies are, pretty much by definition, people (or things) that we spend our entire lives fighting to get rid of. Yet whenever we find ourselves without them we have to make them up, and the ones we make up are sometimes worse than the ones that come naturally.

Fortunately, in an ironic sense, we rarely run into situations where we have a shortage of enemies to fight against. There are always aggressive, greedy people in the world screwing things up for everyone else. There are always carelessly selfish people putting their own momentary personal pleasures ahead of everything those around them care about. There are always new diseases making life shorter and more painful than we believe it should be. In the famous words of the character actress in the original caste of Saturday Night Live, “Well Jane, it just goes to show: if it’s not one thing it’s another.”

I’m going ride into battle against this topic of enemies using a weapon that I rarely employ, though one which many preachers can’t live without: a four-point outline.

  1. What happens when we don’t have enemies?
  2. What actual threats come from our enemies?
  3. What must we watch for in confronting our enemies?
  4. How should we relate to having enemies around?

I don’t want to call on you to join me in fighting against any particular enemy or enemies this time around, because that’s not what this Psalm, or any of these other readings, is really about. I’ll let you pick your own enemies to apply this to. Let me just preface this perspective on enemies this far: If your life is in the sort of peaceful state where you have no one and nothing that you consider to a source of evil to fight against, there is probably someone you love who needs your help in facing one of their own enemies. If none of your loved ones have any enemies, that probably means you haven’t dared to love enough. I’ll leave it to you to decide what you should do about that.

1.
In a very real sense it is possible to become addicted to conflict. Our brains get rewired in a way that the expectation of life-or-death threats becomes part of what makes us tick. In the film Full Metal Jacket as the main character arrives in Viet Nam and is being introduced to his new platoon-mates he meets one particularly unhinged aggressive individual who seems ready to start a fight with him on the spot. Before things get really ugly though another soldier steps in to diffuse the situation by praising the crazy man’s capacities in battle situations as his main redeeming feature. But that has implications: “All he needs is someone to throw hand grenades at him for the rest of his life.” Needless to say, that sort of need for enemies is not healthy. But one doesn’t need to have been through literal war situations to develop this sort of need to “have hand grenades thrown at you” all the time. Stress addicts are constantly being produced by many aspects of the way we live these days.

Enabling those for whom heavy amounts of conflict have become “normal” to function with less conflict can be a long and complicated process. But for now I want to set aside questions of how to treat PTSD and related problems. We can also need enemies in healthy ways. Think of it this way: throughout human history basic characteristics of health have always included a capacity to resist diseases, to protect oneself against predators and to withstand uncomfortable changes in temperature. We want our children to develop these basic capacities, even though we know that they will have to face at least mild conflict and hardship in order to develop these capacities. So we try to introduce these risks into their lives slowly and carefully, but not to the extent of trying to keep our kids in a painless and sterilized bubble all the time.

There is some basic truth to the line told by the old musician to his student in the Buddhist story: “If you tighten the string too much it will snap, but if you leave it too loose it will not play.” Like instrument strings, we all need a balanced amount of pressure on us from outside forces, even if we may not appreciate it at the time. What counts as “the right amount” depends on who we consider the musician “playing us” to be, and what kind of “music” we hope will come out of us.

As a quick example of how not having enough enemies can cause problems in Christian life I can mention Medieval monks. Basically they all had to officially believe the same set of teachings and so they had no one to argue with but other monks who believed all of the same things they did. Anyone who disagreed with them seriously on basic points of Christian teaching got killed by the inquisition, so they never really had any real intellectual enemies, or even serious opponents. You can sort of see this in the justifications they came up with for their beliefs, and their bitter attacks on each other over the most trivial points of Christian doctrine.  Their negative example in this area shows us how if we don’t have “real enemies” we make enemies of those who should be our allies.

2.
Just because we need enemies all the time in order to have a satisfying life doesn’t mean that enemies are nothing to worry about. How seriously we should take which sort of enemy, as something more than a means of training ourselves and focusing our energy, largely depends on where our sense of happiness and satisfaction in life comes from.

There is a famous story among portrait photographers that the most iconic picture ever taken of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was shot using a very simple spontaneous technique: As the photographer got all of the equipment ready the prime minister sat there smoking his cigar. When everything was in place, without saying anything the photographer snatched the cigar from his hand, stepped behind the camera and took the picture. The result was a carefully composed but angry and defiant look on Churchill’s face, which perfectly summed up the sort of image people had of him as their leader in confronting the axis powers during World War 2. But the enemy Churchill was thinking about when the picture was taken was not the Germans or the Japanese or Italians, but that bastard who dared to steal his cigar before taking his picture!

Another famous Churchill story from the same era tells of how the suggestion came up at one of his cabinet meetings that, because of the difficulties balancing the budget with all of the war expenses, Britain should discontinue its government support for the arts. The Prime Minister stared down the one making this suggestion and asked, “Then what would we be fighting for?”

For some these might seem trivial matters. If all that our enemies can take from us are cigars and museums, maybe we shouldn’t be all that worried about them. But of course there are many more things that different sorts of enemies can take from us, including life itself, or even worse, the reasons we consider life to be worth living.

And what is it that makes life worth living (if not cigars and museums)? That is of course the deepest of philosophical questions, which we can’t really properly explore within the limits of a basic Sunday sermon. Suffice to say, I believe the Christian answer should involve loving and being loved, and finding ways to express gratitude to God by respecting the world he has given us and leaving it just a little better for others.

In what ways do we need to worry about enemies taking away our capacities to love and to improve the world in little ways? That depends on how secure we feel in our love and in the value of our work. Perhaps the most important thing we need to learn to do then is to draw security from our relationship with God right while we are faced with these enemies.

3.
When confronting our enemies though, we need to consider more than just what valuable aspect of our work they might try to take from us. When it comes to human enemies we need to ask ourselves, what do we think makes us better than them? Or are we better than them? Are we in fact talking about true enemies, or merely opponents?

If we are talking about the most serious sorts of enemies, part of our approach must entail believing that the enemy is really evil. If we are talking about some sort of team sport, we might think (or hope) that our team is more naturally talented, in better physical condition and/or better trained than the other guys, but rarely do we try to convince ourselves that the other team is pure evil, that our team’s reasons for competing are more righteous than theirs, or that for us to win would somehow be a victory for God’s kingdom. Those who do think that way are more often than not the worst sort of enemy for everyone else to face, and a disgrace to the faith that they claim to stand for!

We need to maintain perspective in matters of competition, not only in sports, but in every other form of competition that is part of our everyday life. Competition can be valuable as a form of entertainment, as a tool in teaching, and as a means of motivating greater accomplishments for the good of everyone involved; but when winning in competition for its own sake is the primary purpose of our work, that can very easily start doing more harm than good. If our work is only of value when we can use it to defeat and devalue someone else, perhaps we need to reconsider why we are in such a business to begin with.

Is there really something better about your cause in the conflict than your enemy’s? Don’t take that for granted. Try to bear in mind that your human enemy too is someone made in the image of God. That doesn’t necessarily justify their actions in whatever conflict you have going with them; it mean that if you have lost sight of their value it is hypocritical for you to claim that you are on God’s side in this fight, or visa-versa.

Yet even a person with value from being made in the image of God can do horrible, evil things that must be stopped. And we can thoroughly believe in fighting against the evil of more abstract enemies like racism or disease. There is much to be said for fighting and fighting hard against evil, wherever we find it. But of chief importance in that process is making sure we don’t become evil ourselves.

4.
So let’s then turn to the day’s scripture passages for a bit of guidance and perspective in dealing with the ongoing presence of enemies in our lives. Psalm 23 and Isaiah 25 pretty closely parallel each other from different points in the history of ancient Israel. Isaiah takes more of a tone of, “Yeah God, you’re going to kick some butt for us, aren’t you?!” The Psalmist is more like, “I’m cool. God’s got everything under control. He’s taking care of me, so I’m not going to sweat it.” But both have a pretty strong emphasis on enemies being there, but them being nothing to worry about. In one sense these passages point to the cliche self-help principle of “positive thinking,” and there is something positive to that. More important though is truly believe that God is real, that he cares for you, that he is out to protect you, and you are genuinely important to him.

Matthew 22 retells one of Jesus’ parables that is a bit more on the complicated side. One set of enemies is those who reject the king’s banquet request. Another is the homeless guy who gets the opportunity of his life to eat with the royals and he doesn’t even bother to clean up for the occasion. One thing to bear in mind here is that God is not in fact like this sort of insecure and reactionary king. Like the parable of the wicked judge in Luke 18, the point isn’t to say what God is like, but what sort of approach we should take to powers beyond ourselves in general. If you wouldn’t rebel against or show calloused disrespect for crazy ruler, you certainly shouldn’t do such things before God. Stop and think about what makes someone an enemy, and don’t let yourself become an enemy to those who matter; to God in particular.

Paul’s closing chapter of his letter to the Philippians brings this all together. He starts by telling the church in Philippi how proud he is of them, and then immediately he jumps into encouraging them to help a couple ladies there settle their differences. So when it comes to enemies, once again, when it’s up to you, don’t be one!  From there, practice focusing your mind on the peace that God wants to give you. And as a final little bit of instruction to this church Paul flips around the instruction that too many would-be Christian leaders lean towards these days. Paul’s version: “Don’t just do as I say, do as I do!” If we follow those guidelines the promise he gave to the Philippians is good for us too: “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus […] and the God of peace will be with you.”

Let us pray…

 

Sour Grapes

  • Isaiah 5:1-7
  • Psalm 80:7-15
  • Philippians 3:4b-14
  • Matthew 21: 33-46

To be perfectly honest with you, I find this particular combination of scriptures to be a bit disturbing, more from the Lutheran way of combining them than from the scriptures themselves. The gospel reading, the psalm and the prophet’s message here all contain the same imagery: a vineyard which has been carefully and professionally planted to produce fine wine, but which provides no such joy for its owner. Isaiah blames the vines themselves: they were carefully chosen, and they got such good care, so why can’t they provide a decent tasting crop rather than bitter wild grapes? The psalmist takes things from the vines’ perspective and sings out his blues: “We were growing so strong and massive! Why did the vineyard keeper all of the sudden decide to let us go to waste?” Jesus’ parable about this disappointing vineyard blames the vines not so much as their keepers, implying something about how the spiritual leaders of the Jews were going to put him to death and God was going to be seriously pissed with them about this! In all three of these cases the vineyard is Israel or the Jewish people, and because of the disappointment they bring to God by providing him with none of the drunken joy of a good wine, God is going make them regret this failure! Then we come to the epistle with Paul telling his readers that all of the merits he had from being an excellent Jew he counted as loss, implying that he was switching teams so as to be among those God would be giving over “his vineyard” to instead of the Jews.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how a virulently anti-Semitic sermon could be constructed on the basis of this combination of scripture passages, blaming the Jews for all of their own problems and a whole lot more. And as we approach the 500th anniversary of Luther starting his protest against the abuses of the medieval Catholic Church, it is important to remember that for all Luther’s heroic qualities he also had some majorly screwed up personal issues, one of which was a tendency to preach such sermons. Of course we can hope and try to believe that over the last 500 years, and over the last 70 years in particular, Protestant churches may have outgrown the urge to attack Judaism from the pulpit –– and maybe someday they will also outgrow the urge to attack Muslims from the pulpit –– but I’m not willing to wager on it in the former case, on that I’m not holding my breath waiting to see the latter happen.

My first point first point here then, as a preface to talking about these passages themselves, is that using scriptures to justify attacking Jews –– or for other hateful practices like keeping slaves, treating women as men’s rightful property, or committing genocide –– is what the Bible itself is talking about regarding “twisting scriptures to our own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). Let’s avoid that temptation.

So with that out of the way, what do these passages have to say to us today? Let’s start with the irony of Israel coming to be compared with a vineyard to begin with.

The early Israelites were a nomadic shepherd people, and they considered that to be a holier way of life, to wander with their flocks, than to be rooted in place attending to vineyards and the like. This was a significant cultural difference between the Hebrews and the Egyptians from the moment Joseph moved his family into his adopted homeland in Egypt (Genesis 46:34), and we actually see this tension reflected all the way back in the story of Cain and Abel: God liked Abel’s lamb offering more than Cain’s fruit offering (Genesis 4:4-5), so JHWH was the sort of deity who favored shepherds over fruit farmers. And then there was the Nazarite vow system in Numbers 6, where to be specially dedicated to the God for a particular time a man would go without haircuts and shaves, and without consuming anything related to grapes, until he went through the prescribed concluding ritual at the tabernacle or temple. John the Baptist seems to have been observing some variation on this vow: not touching wine and living off of the land to extreme down by the Jordan River.

So with all this in mind, why did these biblical writers choose grape vines of all things as the metaphor for Israel?

Let me get off on a side issue for just a moment here, relating to grapes and wine: around the time that the Old Testament canon was closing there was this Greek philosopher named Aristotle, whom the Catholic Church came to accept in the Middle Ages as a source of great wisdom, even though it later turned out that Aristotle was scientifically wrong about all kinds of things. Anyway, when it comes to leading a good, decent moral life, Aristotle’s main book on the subject is called the Nicomachean Ethics, written as a general advice collection for his oldest son, Nicomachus, to live by. The core message of the Nicomachean Ethics is that what you most want to do is look for lasting satisfaction in life –– which may or may not be the same thing as “happiness” though many translators use that word to describe Aristotle’s goal in English –– and the most important principle to focus on in order to achieve that lasting satisfaction is balance. (Hang on, I’m coming to the point here.)

What does he mean by balance? Well, to start with a simple example, Aristotle believed that everyone needs to enjoy food as part of living a happy life. There is a very definite form of satisfaction that comes with the pleasure of eating, and Aristotle firmly believed that you cannot be a happy person without that. That’s easy enough to agree with him on. An anorectic cannot be considered a happy person. But at the same time, someone who takes eating to extremes –– the obese glutton –– cannot be considered a happy person either. Everyone needs to enjoy their food, but they need to find the balanced amount of such enjoyment which is suitable for them at any given stage in life in order to be a properly happy person.

The same principle applies to many other things. And perhaps by now you’ve guessed where I’m going with this: Aristotle told is son that, beside food, there are at least two other things which are necessary in order to lead a happy life, but which also must be appreciated in balance and moderation: wine and sex. From Aristotle’s perspective people who live entirely without either of those cannot be happy people, but people who let either of those dominate their lives likewise cannot be happy people.

I’m not going to take a stand one way or the other on the question of whether Aristotle was right about those last two matters; I’m just going to say that I strongly believe God has nothing against happiness, including the kind that comes from these three things Aristotle doesn’t believe any person should live entirely without. I further believe that these things should not be taken as the focus of what counts as godliness: John the Baptist lived a life of complete self-deprivation, and that certainly didn’t make him any less godly; whether that made his life less satisfying is harder to say. Jesus “came eating and drinking” (Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:34), and that certainly didn’t make him any less godly! God has nothing against happiness, even if many of those who claim to represent him are some of the most virulently anti-happiness campaigners you could ever imagine.

Groucho Marx tells the story of meeting a Catholic priest in Canada one time. The priest asked to shake his hand, and said, “I want to thank you for all the happiness you have brought into the world.” Groucho shook his hand and replied, “And I would like to thank you for all of the happiness that you have taken out of this world.”

How does that happen? I believe it has to do with a misinterpretation of the general principle that I mentioned in closing last time: the Gospel message is intended to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. Or to quote from the president’s well written speech following the mass-killing in Las Vegas this month, “Scripture teaches us the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit [Psalm 34:18]. We seek comfort in those words, for we know that God lives in the hearts of those who grieve.”

As important as this is though, many people get it flipped around the wrong direction: they make themselves and other more miserable on purpose, thinking that doing so will bring them closer to God as a result. That is completely not the point, and Jesus came “eating and drinking” to prove it to us.

But Jesus also came to show us that attaining a comfy position in life and “being a winner” is not the point in life either. He spent his own life with outcasts and losers on purpose, and he eventually sacrificed his life so we would get that point. We don’t need to be occupied with what magnificent branches our vines have, or what sort of prestigious stock they come from. Psalm 80 makes it abundantly clear that those are not the sort of things God is after. The point is that we are to love God and let ourselves be loved by him.

One of the main points of anything that can be called love is to connect with the other in a way that his joys become part of your joys, and his pains become part of your pains. So how do we apply that to loving God? To start with, a major part of loving God is, in terms of the analogies in the scriptures read here today, giving him access to what would for him be “good wine” –– what he finds satisfying and enjoyable.

So what constitutes “good wine” for God? Hint: it has nothing to do with making ourselves miserable on purpose just to show God that we’re ready to be miserable for him! That would be more like the kind of bitter wild-tasting fruit, or sour grapes, that Isaiah was talking about. Closer to target would be for each of us to have the kind of joy for ourselves that God most intended for us to have: through being fully connected with him and each other; caring about something bigger than ourselves and knowing that we have a role in the greatest power this earth has ever known: God’s kingdom.

In the Gospel of John chapter 15 Jesus flips the whole vineyard analogy, which we’ve seen here in the negative, in a much more positive direction: He is the vine and we are his branches. God’s love flows through him into us, making us fruitful and properly completing our joy. And the completion of this is found in the ways in which we care for and care about one another. The rest is details.

The portion from Philippians 3 that we read today is Paul’s personal application of the core message of the opening verses of Philippians 2: “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind…”

Are we ready to take a chance on loving each other in this sort of way? If not we probably shouldn’t pretend to be followers of Jesus.

I leave it to each of you to meditate on how you believe God would have you apply that in your own lives.

Let us pray.

My Prayer: Don’t give them the satisfaction

  • Psalm 25
  • Ezekiel 18
  • Philippians 2
  • Matthew 21

It is no news to any of you that there are people in this world who make swear words necessary; who cannot be adequately described in language that teachers and preachers are generally allowed to use. What is worse, many of these people claim to be serving God as they perform these deeds that don’t fit into polite language.

Sometimes, these individuals are those who, from an original position of being allies, turn on us and try to take over our kingdoms –– reap the benefits of all the work we have done –– when they find us in a vulnerable position. This is what King David is talking about in Psalm 25 (especially verse 3).

Sometimes they are those who paint a picture of God as some sort of unjust monster, whose vacillating judgements they claim to have some sort of unique power to discern. This is the sort of frustration Ezekiel was facing in chapter 18.

Some try to preach just to prove something about how important they are, especially in comparison with those they have some sort of rivalry with. Dealing with that sort of situation is the basis of what Paul had to say to the Philippians (see 1:17).

And then there are those who start to get testy over their traditional area of power and influence being at risk. This was the core issue as to why Jesus needed to verbally slap down the Jewish elders in Matthew 21.

Jesus was coming into the temple after a rather busy few days when the exchange in Matthew 21 takes place. He had made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, not on a fine prancing war horse but on a lowly donkey –– one so young that it still needed to have its mommy around –– following through on what Zechariah 9:9 had to say about the coming Messiah. After that victorious experience though Jesus ended up getting seriously pissed off and the sleazy business going on in the temple courtyard, where they were selling animals for sacrifice; and as I’ve summarized the tale for teenagers, he went all Chuck Norris on them. Jesus cooled down from that by going on a bit of a healing and miracle working spree. All this led to an argument with the temple authorities, not over his scrap with the businessmen, but over him letting little kids yell out to everyone about how awesome he was. From there, the next morning, after spending a night with his friends in Bethany, Jesus went to pick some figs for breakfast on his way back into the city, only to find the fig tree bare of fruit, at which point he got angry enough to let out a curse which killed the tree. It was just after that, as Jesus was sitting in the temple teaching, perhaps still feeling a bit low on blood sugar, that the temple bosses came over to pick their next little fight with him.

It would be just a few days after this event that they would arrange to have Jesus put to death, in historical terms largely because he had succeeded in getting so many of these would-be representatives of God seriously upset with him. But on the day of this story they weren’t trying to kill him yet; merely trying to outsmart him and humiliate him. That wasn’t going to work.

The Jewish elders’ question to Jesus was a simple variation on the theme of, “what the hell do you think you’re doing here?” Without resorting to a childish, “no, what are you doing here,” Jesus managed to flip the question around on them. And there really was an important question to be put to them in terms of how they were approaching their task as “servants of God.”

Jesus asked the Jewish elders if they thought John the Baptist was empowered by God or not. Today Jesus’ question could be rephrased to direct it to the religious leaders of our age in number of different ways. One would be to ask, “Was Martin Luther King, Jr. a hero or a villain?” If they dare to answer, “He was a hero,” many American Evangelical Christian leaders run the risk of subsequently tying themselves up in knots trying to explain why they continue to represent white privilege and maintenance of an elite status quo regardless of their respect for a man who they acknowledge as a hero for taking a stand against these things. If they deny that he was a hero, on the other hand, they turn against everything that people of this generation recognize as best about Christianity.

Or we could ask, “What made Mother Theresa’s work so special and so important?” If they deny the importance of her work, or if they try to peg it to some aspect of Christian doctrinal orthodoxy, they make fools of themselves in the eyes of everyone they are trying to impress. If they give the obvious answer, “It was the compassion she showed to those that no one else would care for,” then they are stuck facing the question of how that sort of compassion figures into their own priorities, when too often it is conspicuously absent there.

Jesus wasn’t inclined to let those who pretended to serve God as a means of improving their fortune and social standing get away with it. He never preached or practiced violence (beyond forcibly shutting down that sleazy market in the temple), but the way he went after them verbally made some of his opponents wish that he had physically beat the snot out of them instead. His main tactic was to make it clear to everyone that most of those who claimed to speak for God did not have God on their side. And he never gave them the satisfaction of being able to claim the high moral ground in these discussions.

Their arguments with Jesus ended in one of two ways: either they had to concede that they were mistaken on some key points, or they got too angry to keep discussing matters rationally and they tried to violently attack him. He never tried to fully eliminate their corruption, but he seriously disturbed their confidence in their self-righteousness.

For much of the time of his ministry Paul was in a more vulnerable position in these matters. Face-to-face he could hold his own with any opponent in terms of rational argument, but when it came to vocal dynamics and body language he couldn’t sway an audience as effectively as some others. But even that wasn’t his main challenge. More importantly, he was in jail much of the time, meaning that his rivals could speak face-to-face with people that Paul himself could only reply to in writing. In these case he could only keep writing as forcibly as possible, and keep praying that his influence would not be undone by those who claimed to have more authentic message than he did. (For more on this topic, have a read through 2 Corinthians 10.) Like Jesus, Paul was unwilling to concede the high moral ground in an argument to his opponents, but Paul had more limitations that he had to acknowledge in this process.

Eventually, however, Paul came to realize that the point of being a Christian is not winning arguments for the sake of winning arguments, but rather to reveal a form of love that none of us have the power to show to others in and of ourselves. Jesus gave up not only his rights as God, but his rights as a human being. He became less than a slave ––  gave himself up to be tortured to death –– so that his followers could begin to understand that there wasn’t anything about their own reputations that they needed to worry about defending. By emptying ourselves of anything of our own that we consider worth fighting for, we can enter into something more glorious than anything any human endeavor could possibly accomplish: the complete Lordship of Jesus that he attained through his suffering.

The only way we can fulfill the task of revealing this kind of love to others is if we thoroughly and sincerely realize that it’s not about us to begin with. If the point of our lives’ work is to bring glory to the name of some particular brand of religion –– regardless of how wise or powerful or well-established its leadership or tradition –– it is doomed to failure, because it wasn’t really a worthy goal to begin with.

To understand what Paul’s message is all about here, I ask each of you to take time to contemplate the “therefore” that begins Philippians 2 verse 9: Jesus let himself be crucified, therefore he is lord of all. Quiet your mind for a while so as to grasp even just a little of how that “therefore” works. Grammatically and logically it could not be simpler. The Greek word here is “dia.” In the language of logical symbolism this is expressed by three dots positioned in an equilateral triangle form. It means because of this, that; or in Latin, quid pro quo. We have Jesus’ self-emptying via allowing himself to be tortured to death… therefore massive glory is given to his name. If this doesn’t intuitively make sense to you pray about it: ask God to show you what he was showing Paul here.

Paul was only starting to get this idea himself when he wrote this passage. He was still looking for things to be proud of regarding his own work, and he was still hoping that the church of Philippi would somehow help him justify his miserable existence. He knew that there were plenty of characters out there who wanted to discredit his efforts. He had heard that while he was in prison some of these characters were tracing over his footprints, trying to tell those who had previously listened to him what the message of Jesus was “really all about.” Paul was only beginning to understand that he didn’t really need to be worried about that.

It’s probably fair to say that in practice those who had known Jesus in person, “in the flesh,” understood this principle even less than Paul did. So if these heroes of the faith had such a weak grasp of this foundational “therefore,” how can we hope to properly get it in our own lives?

All I can really say about that is it will always be an incomplete process, but the more you are able to remind yourself that “it’s not about me, but about what Jesus did for all of us,” the closer you will get.

And leaving that in your mind to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable among you, let us pray.